I remember being taught in school how plants and animals have a life cycle. From birth to death, flora and fauna, for the most part, observe a similar progression. Did you ever think that the idea of a life cycle applies to other things as well? Think about great empires of the past like Greece, Rome, and Egypt which grew, tried to maintain, and then declined. Think about a city like Detroit, Michigan, which grew, had major influence, and now is trying to survive. I’ve heard some say, as Anglicans, we are experiencing the last stages in the life cycle of the British Empire with it trying and failing to hold on to control of the Anglican Communion.
In Revelation 3:1-6 we read about the church in the city of Sardis. Like Detroit, Sardis was a city that once was great but by the time Revelation was written, was nearly dead. According to Mounce’s commentary, Sardis was one of the most powerful cities in the ancient world back in the sixth century B.C., however by the first century A.D., it was a mere shadow of its former self. It seems the culture of the city affected the culture of the local church. Again, according to Mounce, “The church at Sardis was considered to be alive and well, but actually it was on the point of death. Christ admonishes the congregation to wake up to their perilous condition and take steps to restore their former vitality.” If any church was is need of Church Revitalization, it was the Church in Sardis:
Write this letter to the angel of the church in Sardis. This is the message from the one who has the sevenfold Spirit of God and the seven stars:
“I know all the things you do, and that you have a reputation for being alive—but you are dead. Wake up! Strengthen what little remains, for even what is left is almost dead. I find that your actions do not meet the requirements of my God. Go back to what you heard and believed at first; hold to it firmly. Repent and turn to me again. If you don’t wake up, I will come to you suddenly, as unexpected as a thief. Yet there are some in the church in Sardis who have not soiled their clothes with evil. They will walk with me in white, for they are worthy. All who are victorious will be clothed in white. I will never erase their names from the Book of Life, but I will announce before my Father and his angels that they are mine. Anyone with ears to hear must listen to the Spirit and understand what he is saying to the churches. -Rev. 3:1-6
Just as both empires and cities have a life cycle, local congregations have a life cycle. Every existing church was at one time a church plant. It grew. And then, not always but often, the church rests on its own success. It starts looking inward instead of outward, toward the present and past instead of the future, and if it doesn’t “wake up” using Jesus’ words, it will eventually decline and die. If you would like more information about the church life cycle, please go to our website at www.churchrevive.org which describes it in more detail. You can even assess where your church is on the life cycle.
But a church doesn’t have to go into maintenance and decline. In fact, this is what church revitalization is all about. It is doing what Jesus said to the Sardis Church, “Go back to what you heard and believed at first; hold to it firmly. Repent and turn to me again.” It’s about jumping the curve toward decline and keeping the church in a growth trajectory.
When I first arrived as the new rector of a church in Jacksonville, FL it was a church like the one in Sardis that had a “glory period” long ago. The church was started right after WWII in a new development near one of two Navy bases on that side of town. It grew to over 300 on a Sunday. Among other changes in the city, including the closing of one Naval base, the church declined and then plateaued. It had signs of life with about 140 active members but in many ways it was almost dead. The culture in the church was one I would describe as, “poor us, we’re just a ‘blue collar’ church. Nothing good can happen to us.” The church was within miles of a large, “wealthy church” on the river and a large “charismatic church” which at one time had over 1,000 people on Sundays at the peak of the charismatic renewal. Living in the shadow of these two larger churches had an impact on my church’s identity.
Knowing I was called to that church for the purpose of revitalization, my message to them was, “Wake up! Strengthen what little remains, for even what is left is almost dead. I find that your actions do not meet the requirements of my God. Go back to what you heard and believed at first; hold to it firmly.” Now, I didn’t actually use those exact words, but the message was the same. Go back to what the church did before the maintenance and decline stages. Go back to doing the vital things that Jesus told the church to do which are summed up in The Great Commission and Great Commandment! Do what the church is Acts 2 did! It’s not new or complicated to figure out. If the church simply does what Jesus said for the church to do and holds to it firmly over time, it will be healthy and it will grow!
I remember a beautiful moment shortly after I arrived when I found an original bulletin from the very first worship service of the church! I found it because apparently nothing had been thrown away in almost 50 years and I had to dig my way through boxes to clear out room that was being wasted on storage, but I digress. The church’s name was Epiphany and on the original bulletin was this vision statement, “To be a light in the darkness on the Westside of Jacksonville.” Perfect! That was what they originally heard, believed, did, and it worked. They had forgotten that original vision and just needed to go back to it and hold to it firmly. Although it wasn’t easy, over time the church did exactly that and it became healthy again. Many people in darkness on the Westside of Jacksonville came into the Light and were transformed by Jesus.
No church is beyond revitalizing. I know this is true because with God all things are possible! We at the American Anglican Council wouldn’t be investing so heavily in Church Revitalization if we didn’t believe this to be true. Is it easy? No. Is it possible? Absolutely yes! It is possible to jump the Life Cycle curve, if you heed Jesus’ words to the Church in Sardis, “Go back to what you heard and believed at first; hold to it firmly. Repent and turn to me again.”
For information about what this involves, please check out our Church Revitalization resources and our ReVive! Church Revitalization program at www.churchrevive.org. Or contact me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org or 904-608-0047.
The Rev. Canon Mark Eldredge is Director of Church Revitalization and Coaching at the American Anglican Council.